Christmas 2020 - Longing for Hope in the Darkness
It would be an understatement to say that 2020 has been a difficult and dark year. A worldwide pandemic that has drastically altered our lives and has resulted so far in 270,000 plus deaths and counting. A political campaign that has been one of the most contentious with partisanship so intense that each side sees the other side not simply as their political opponent in whom they disagree, but their enemy in whom they must denigrate and defeat. In addition, the American church in some ways seems to be in a shadow of darkness. Many have not been able to avoid the culture wars that stemmed from the pandemic and were not able to rise above the political anger rampant during the election. Many Christians have embraced wild conspiracy theories and are as post-modern in rejection of “truth” as their most secular antagonist. As a result, the church’s public witness was damaged and our mission misdirected and focused on preserving this world’s kingdom instead of building His Kingdom.
The fact that 2020 has been such a dark year makes the celebration of Advent that much more important. I realize that Baptists are not known as a group to talk much about Advent. We say it is because we don’t “observe the Christian Calendar”. However, it’s not like we don’t have our own calendar, e.g., Week of Prayer for Global Missions, Week of Prayer for North American Missions, Sanctity of Human Life Sunday etc. All these are good, but there’s nothing incompatible to Baptist doctrine in celebrating Advent. The word advent literally means the arrival of something. Christmas is supposed to be a celebration – a reflection of the arrival of God in human form into our world.
However, advent begins in the dark. As Wendell Berry wrote, “It gets darker and darker, and then Jesus is born.” One of the great ninth century hymns of Christmas speaks to this idea of advent in the midst of darkness:
O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.
In a real sense, the season of Advent is an acknowledgement that we wait in hope amidst a world in despair, death, disease, darkness and division…and that these conditions have a termination – that a new Kingdom has been inaugurated and that God has shown up in the midst of our lostness, in the midst of our loneliness, in the midst of our darkness, in the midst of our desperation. He shows up - the hope of God, the freedom of God, the reality of God breaks into the world. And this is good news of great joy for all the people!
Christmas loses some of its meaning if we don’t recognize the darkness. So many of our Christmas thoughts are washed in sentimentality and unrealistic idealism. Even as many look at the Christmas stories, they divorce them from the harsh reality and meaning that accompanied those significant events. That original Christmas was not submerged in American sentimentalism or religious superficiality, but it occurred in the midst of unbelievable spiritual conflict and warfare… it was born in the midst of death and darkness and despair. As Isaiah’s Christmas prophecy says…
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone” (Isaiah 9:2).
Maybe it’s appropriate and corrective for the church that this Christmas occurs in the midst of the worse season of a worldwide pandemic to remind us that what we see is not the future that God has in store…that disease and death will not see the advent of the new creation to come, that political divisions and conspiratorial delusions will be drowned in the unveiling of the coming King and His indisputable truth, and that patent injustice and oppression will be vanquished by Him of whom it is said that “righteousness and justice are foundation of His throne”(Psalm 89:14).
Besides the obvious daily devotion of pertinent Bible reading and meditation, during this season of difficulty and darkness, how can we celebrate Advent? First, show tangible love and compassion to others. The very essence of the first Advent of Jesus is what theologians call the Incarnation. The Incarnation is summed up well in John 1:14. Listen to how the Message paraphrases this verse:
“The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood. We saw the glory with our own eyes, the one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like Son, Generous inside and out, true from start to finish.”
I love the way it is stated. God became flesh and blood, and moved into our neighborhood. The first Advent of Jesus was all about Him becoming one of us and moving into our neighborhood. He became like us and came to us and moved into our neighborhood and demonstrated the love and compassion of God in myriads of ways. One of the ways in which we can properly celebrate and simplify Advent is to live the incarnation by demonstrating the love and compassion of Christ in tangible ways to others, especially in this season of COVID.
Second, we can better celebrate Advent by telling the simple message of the Gospel. We don’t need elaborate programs or high-cost productions to tell the story of Jesus. This pandemic has brought our programmatic ministries to a halt. But maybe one of the lessons of this pandemic is to learn that after two millennia, still the most effective way to communicate the Gospel is person to person, friend to friend, co-worker to co-worker etc. Simply telling people, one-on-one, the Gospel story in its utter straightforwardness is essential in really commemorating the Advent of Jesus.
A third way that Advent can be celebrated is for us to seek purity. Our cultural moment has seen many Christ followers act in ways that compromised their pure devotion to Christ. Advent is a time of preparation. This Christmas season I’m sure we’ll sing the classic hymn by Isaac Watts, Joy to the World. The lyrics start out this way:
Joy to the world, the Lord is come! Let earth receive her King; Let every heart prepare Him room.
At His first Advent, the message from Mark’s gospel was: “As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way, the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’” (Mark 1:2-3). Christmas is a season of all sorts of preparations. We prepare the tree. We prepare the house with all sorts of decorations and lights. We prepare the Christmas dinner. We prepare the gifts by wrapping them in Christmas themed paper. But sometimes we don’t make the most important preparation. That is, we don’t prepare our hearts through confession and repentance. We can’t really celebrate His Advent if our hearts are not pure – if they are not prepared for Him to rule.
So, as we enter into December 2020, and a Christmas season significantly different than any we’ve experienced, let us double down on the meditation and celebration of the arrival of the King knowing that His Advent shines more brilliant in the shadows.